Jenna Muller is a senior majoring in English Writing and minoring in French, Business, and Criminal Justice. When she’s not writing, she enjoys collecting books, antiques, and houseplants. Her favorite subject to photograph is her exceptionally wiggly, sun-loving chocolate lab, Kona.
“Doctor, can you watch the game with me?”
Dr. Betts pauses. He was just about to clock out for the evening, looking forward to settling into his armchair after a long day of consultations and post-surgery treatment. But, when he looks back at his patient, her gaze soft and pleading, he caves. “Alright– I’ll stay for five minutes.” She beams as he pulls a wooden chair next to the bed, turning on the TV.
The game is supposed to be a good one. The opener of the World Series, Oakland A’s versus San Francisco Giants. Cross-bay rivals. One half of Candlestick Park is drenched in black and orange; the other, yellow and green. There’s not an empty seat in sight. The spectators have settled, purchasing hot dogs from a vendor dressed in red and white stripes, and the players are antsy, bouncing their legs, biting their fingernails, ready for the game to start. Traffic flows in a slow stream across the Bay Bridge, commuters flood onto the trains at Embarcadero station, and planes depart SFO despite the early-fall fog. Life carries on.
The broadcast starts. “And home for the Giants, one of the finest vistas on this continent, any continent, downtown San Francisco in the background. And we zoom in to Candlestick Park in the southeastern corner of this city. For the first time in 27 years, a World Series game will be played in Candlestick Park.” The announcers, Al Michaels and Tim McCarver, shuffle their papers and begin discussing the highlights of the past two games, narrating slo-mo videos of Terry Kennedy dropping a throw from Will Clark at the plate and Dave Parker missing a home run by inches.
Then, it happens.
About sixty miles south of San Francisco, somewhere in the Santa Cruz mountains near the wrinkled, green heights of the Loma Prieta peak, a tectonic plate slips. On the broadcast, a jarring scream echoes behind Al and Tim. “I’ll tell you what–” Al is cut off by a buzzing static.
Then, briefly, back to baseball. Jose Conseco scores, but Al is panicked. “We’re– I think we’re having an earthqua–” The screen goes blank.
It only lasts for fifteen seconds, but it’s like the world is ending.
The Goodyear blimp above the stadium sees everything. The players flock to the safety of the open field, spectators grip their rocking seats, and the hot dog vendor drops a bottle of ketchup, spraying the stairs with a shocking splatter of red. Traffic lights blink, cars shudder, and powerlines swing like sparking double dutch ropes.. Beyond the stadium, the soil of the marshlands seems to turn to liquid. The tides in Monterey and Carmel recede drastically and then swell, swallowing beached kelp and abandoned umbrellas. The sands of Pajaro collapse into craters, forming a dimpled, alien moonscape.
And there, drowning out every other sense, is the sound of fear. That’s the only way it can be described: the collective inhale as the ground rolls like a wave of water, the shuddering vibration of steel and glass as buildings shift, their foundations no longer embedded in the soil. It’s the whooshing, metallic screech of an oncoming freight train, the deep, reverberating roar of thunder, only it’s coming from below, as if the devil is trying to claw his way out of the Earth’s belly. Swimming through its molten core until he nears the surface, slamming on the rocky crust with one giant fist. Let me out! Let me out!
The Cypress Street viaduct in Oakland seems to twist as its support columns crack and fail, swallowed by the marshy soil loosened in the shaking. It begins to fold in on itself like a piece of industrial, brutalist origami, 500 tons of broken freeway collapsing in a thick plume of dust. It’s like a cadaver, twisted ribbons of metal and chunks of concrete jutting at strange angles in a complex knot of vehicular entrails.
Three miles away from the viaduct, the Oakland Children’s hospital sways with the motion of the ground. Dr. Betts grips onto the child’s plastic bed frame to keep it from bucking her off. The horrific, shrill pitch of children screaming travels through the hallways and makes his ears ring, the fluorescent lights above flickering wildly before shutting off.
He looks down at the child. She is terrified, the whites of her eyes seeming to glow in the darkness as she searches his face for some sort of reassurance. Her breath heaves from her chest in startled gasps. He hides his shaking hands behind his back. He is scared, too. He hopes that she cannot see it.
At Candlestick, there is only complete silence. Spectators sit in fear, waiting for an aftershock to split the stadium in two, unaware that their neighbors, their friends, their family, could have been caught under the crushing weight of the viaduct. Unaware that there are fires starting in the streets from burst gas pipelines, that their beautiful city, their home, is crumbling.
A station wagon, weighed down with doctors and medical equipment, winds through the streets of Oakland, avoiding wreckage and panicked pedestrians. Dr. Betts sits in the backseat. He and some of his colleagues have been called to Cypress Street, where there are people who need their help. He has done airlifts and emergency rescues before, but he is nervous for what he might see in the wreckage tonight. He fiddles with the handle on his box of emergency pediatric equipment as he looks out the window. The streets look like the scene of a disaster movie, the sound of sirens bouncing off of stone and metal walls.
A steelworker climbs the two-story tall mountain of wreckage at the Cypress Street viaduct, unable to wait any longer for the sound of sirens to arrive. His eyes scan the overturned vehicles, the angular mess of roadway and broken piling, for some sign of movement, some sound of life. He is clambering past a car, its whole front half-squashed by a jagged slab of concrete, when he hears it.
A boy, whimpering.
“Betts, you need to hurry. This thing isn’t stable.” He hears a police officer yell at him as he examines the situation inside the car.
The boy is trapped in the backseat, legs pinned under the collapsed front of the car. He is young, probably six years old. Dr. Betts doesn’t know his name, but he does know what he must do to save his life.
They have already made the decision as a medical team to cut the mother’s corpse in half with a chainsaw. They needed to do it to create enough space as possible for Dr. Betts to complete the operation. He has squeezed into the car with his equipment box in hand, not noticing that the blood-soaked front seat stained his crisp white lab coat.
He opens the box, trying to ignore the stifling heat from the halogen work lights that the firemen have set up for him, latex gloves clinging to his sweaty hands. He inserts an intravenous line in the child’s hand and applies a numbing agent, thinking about earthquakes as he chooses a blade. He takes a deep breath to calm the tremors in his hands and begins to saw at his leg to free him.
He thinks about how this might only be a foreshock, and how the earth has pent up this sliding tension for eighty years. The last time an earthquake like this hit the Bay Area was in 1906, when most of the city was destroyed, thousands left dead. He realizes that this child might not be the only one that he must free tonight.
The police officers are yelling up at him again. They want him to get out of there. It’s too dangerous, they’re saying, this child likely won’t survive, even if he is able to free him. But now, he’s not afraid of an aftershock, of the wreckage collapsing on top of him. He is afraid of failing. And he cannot fail.
He has to hold the artery that supplies blood to the lower portion of the child’s leg between his fingers. He pauses to look at him, make sure that he’s okay, and he’s surprised to find that his eyes have fluttered open, glowing in silent fear like the little girl’s at the hospital. “Hey, hey. Look at my face.” The child looks, eyes half-open.
“What’s your name?” Dr. Betts asks, trying to distract him as he finishes the amputation, drops his blade, and hastily wraps a bandage around his leg.
“J-Julio.” His voice is quiet, raspy. His eyes close again.
Dr. Betts grabs Julio, gingerly but quickly. He presses the boy’s face into his shoulder, covering his eyes so that he doesn’t wake to see the mangled remains of his mother in the front seat. As they inch backwards, he carefully shifts Julio’s weight and slips his mother’s wedding ring from her finger, slipping it into Julio’s sweatshirt pocket. Then, he slides out of the wreckage and into the cold night. Julio is lifted from his arms by a faceless fireman and is taken to a waiting ambulance.
Dr. Betts stays on the ground, just for a moment, looking up at the night sky. Tethered to his spot, the ground still and solid. Breathing in and out. In and out.
The aftershock cannot come now, he tells himself. There is more work to do. He stands, shakes the dust off, and goes to the next car.